Thursday 4 September 2008

So, what is an 'uber-Blairite?'

Charles Clarke has upset a lot of people in his own party today. Clarke’s New Statesman piece ended with a veiled threat, but it was pretty clear unveiled in his Today programme interview this morning. But, as Clarke admitted, the real meaning was that the Cabinet does not agree with him that Brown must go. The pre-conference coup is off. I have written more about this at Comment is Free today.

Clarke is fundamentally right about one thing: Blairism is over – and throwing around labels of Blairite and Brownite misses the point.

But let me enter a caveat. I am not happy to entirely let go of the useful term ‘uber-Blairite’ does describe a particular view within the party – even if it is necessary to hunt pretty hard to find anybody who holds it.

There are two possible definitions.

One is about public politics. This is about those who still define New Labour in negative terms: not Old Labour. If it sounds like something. But the party need not live in the fear of the ‘no compromise with the electorate’ Labour party of 1983 or the shadow of its 1992 election defeat forever. That approach can not renew Labour after a decade of New Labour if the model is ‘think of something the Labour party won’t like and double it’. Nor can it challenge the shift of the Cameron Conservatives, to find out if it is rhetorical or real. The Tories have gone for a £2 million threshold on inheritance tax (they talk about the have nots, but they always prioritse the have yachts) but that does not mean it would be clever for Labour to out-bid them. The weakness of this ‘negative revisionism’ is that it risks being in favour of ‘reform, reform, and more reform’ – but without a clear expression about ends as well as means, how are we to decide which reforms we are for and against?

The other is more precisely ideological: the belief that New Labour’s mild and muted social democratic agenda has tested the state to destruction. The carrier of the uber-Blairite flag is probably ex-SMF Director Phil Collins. Having been the most articulate champion of ever more choice, personalisation and reform of the public services Collins might be proud to carry the banner. Collins is no fan of the Fabian Society, having recently described the Fabian tradition as a poisoned well. But the number of MPs or party members who share his analysis that the Labour party must declare social democracy dead can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

On either definition, David Miliband is not a Blairite, still less the super-charged uber-Blairite version. From pretty different perspectives on right and left, Spectator editor Matthew d’Ancona (who says Miliband is more Blairesque than Blairite) and myself both agree that he is a good way further to the social democratic left than that. (My full analysis of Milibandism was published on OpenDemocracy during the summer – and the have been running a thought-provoking series of responses on their excellent Our Kingdom blog).

I have discovered that James Purnell does not fit the uber-Blairite mould either, though that may surprise many on the Tribune-wing of the Labour party. I interviewed him recently for the Fabian Review conference special. One or two people who have taken his public image at face value might be surprised by what he has to say when we publish that in a couple of weeks time.

That strengthened my view that the generation of 40 and 30-somethings in the Labour Party have no interest at all in carrying the personal allegiances of 1997 around for the next twenty years. Which is lucky – as I doubt Ed Miliband wants to lead a rival army to take on his brother. If there is one thing a ‘Next Left’ is about, it has to be about coming up with new answers, not thinking the work was done a generation ago.

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